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Kremlin’s Battling with Islamic State or Search for New Role
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At the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s concern over the rising of “Islamic State” (IS) and subsequent airstrike in “Islamic State” positions in Syria has triggered a debate whether Putin seeks to reconstruct Russia’s glory in the world politics. Putin’s called for a broad UN-backed collation has offered Russia not only battling Islamic State (IS), but also protecting its long-stated goal of keeping Assad regime in Syria.  

The strategic chessboard of Syria has been dramatically changed with the deployment of advanced Russian warplanes into the most important foothold in the West Asia.  For Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, the arrival of Russian troops is a lifeline that could support the Syrian army and destroy US-backed rebel held areas. For Washington, this is unacceptable. "I want to be careful about confirming information, but it does appear that they (Russian airstrikes) were in areas where there probably were not ISIS forces. The result of this kind of action will inevitably, simply be to inflame the civil war in Syria," says U.S. Defence Secretary Ash Carter. 

So why did Russia send troops in support of the Assad regime to stop its collapses? Let me explain by quoting to analyst Anna Borshchevskaya, “Since 2000, President Vladimir Putin has sought to restore Russia as a Great Power, shaping its policy as an anti-American zero-sum game in order to position the country as a counterweight to the West in the Middle East. And Syria is the most important foothold in the region and a key to Putin's calculus."

Factors are manifold behind the Russian move in Syria. First, an explanation from Russia’s Federal Security Service clarifies that politically unstable Syria would trigger the expansion of fundamentalist in the Caucasus which may destabilize the Northern Caucasus region (From Dagestan in the east to Kabardino-Balkaria in the west).  Under the backdrop of two Chechen war, Moscow needs Syria’s strategic support to fight against Caucasian separatism.  The Islamic State (IS) extremist outfit has seized the Palmyra from Syrian troops which is strategically important city (Close to Homs and Damascus). So, from Moscow’s perspective, the survival of Assad regime would fight against the Jabhat al-Nusra and IS.  In this regard, it seeks to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who expressed concern over the crippling manpower problem. In addition, Moscow believes that the fall of the Assad regime would turn the balance of power in West Asia in favor of hostile countries to Moscow.

Second, through power projection in Syria (strong bastion in West Asia), Putin seeks to ensure Russian the only deepwater port on the Eastern Mediterranean at Tartus, which will facilitate regional military power. In January 2013, Russia’s biggest naval exercise in eastern Mediterranean revealed its strong naval presence in international waters. Also, this port backs the Assad regime by opening a main entry point for Moscow’s equipment.

Third, international isolation of Russia after the annexation of Crimea in Ukraine would end after the shifting attention from Ukraine to Syria. As military analyst Alexander Golts put it:  “The idea of an anti-ISIS collation looked like some kind of excellent bridge to overcome isolation, and it appears to have worked.” Also, Iran’s newly nuclear deal with the West instigated Putin in battling ISIS, which may help to restore Kremlin’s power in dealing any global crisis. Moreover, deployment of Russian troops to an airbase in Tartus has signalled Kremlin’s strategic presence in West Asia which claims that no international conflict could be resolved without Russia. 

Lastly, Putin understands that West Asia is the global chessboard from where Russia can challenge the Western policy. Luke Coffey, a research fellow says: “For Putin, the perception of the US failing in the Middle East is the victory for him.”  After Crimean annexation, the Syria operation has once again offered Russia to assert itself as a leading military power by displaying warplanes, satellite communication and geolocation system in West Asia. In making an alliance with Iraq, Iran and Syria, Russia can defeat ISIS positions in the region.  This would stabilize Syria and Iraq and secure their allegiance for the future. Russian allies Syria, Iran and Iraq, are actively involved in combating ISIS in the region.  Moreover, Russia has the right to vote on the United Nations Security Council which can stop international efforts to remove the Assad regime. So under Putin’s leadership, Russia gradually has emerged as a guarantor of peace and security against the policy of ‘regime change’ and ‘democracy promotion’ of the US.

Sandeep Tripathi is a Doctoral Fellow at Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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